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Latest target of blame game is day care

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001

My son is in the dining room, contemplating the chicken and vegetables on his plate. I'm in the kitchen so I miss the beginning of the conversation.

But I do hear him ask my husband, "Are you talking to me?"

We laugh, which he hates. We assure him we are not laughing at him, but at his dead-on Robert DeNiro. But there's no way he could understand the reference, and our daughter finally tells us he learned the expression from a cartoon character named Hey Arnold.

"That's it, no more television," my husband and I say in unison.

Of course we're as likely to ban television as churn our own butter.

Some day our son will learn the truth about that Robert DeNiro movie, that it contributed to the near-assassination of a real U.S. president.

But for the moment we'll blame the ills of society on Hey Arnold, because that's what we do in America: We look for things to blame.

I blamed the public schools when my daughter came home from kindergarten, singing "Hit me baby one more time."

Last week we all got to blame day care.

A front-page story from the Washington Post suggested day care is why so many young children are unruly and belligerent. "Smart and nasty" is how they described the syndrome of the literate youngster you can't take anywhere.

The evidence was so thin that the researchers could have been a group of moms who, after much drinking, declared: "All our 3-year-olds are saying "poopy-head.' Let's blame day care!"

Getting junk science onto the front page is nothing new. Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash, showed how easy it is, especially when working women are the target. Many known facts -- including "you're more likely to be struck by lightning than marry after 35" have no basis in reality, but journalists are assigned to write them up anyway.

Still, countless parents are wondering: "Could day care be the reason Junior broke a window, peed on the wall and calls me "a big fat moron?' "

They don't want to blame themselves for taking their jobs home with them, for swearing like sailors or for popping The Sopranos in the VCR before the children are fully asleep.

They don't want to acknowledge that most children are growing up perfectly fine; it's the worst of the bunch who grab our attention.

Better to heap blame on people who earn $7 an hour to wipe up snot and change dirty diapers. I remember one week when my daughter's toddler class had exploding diarrhea. Every single one of them!

We're talking about women who speak in a lexicon of "indoor voices," "walking feet" and "listening ears," who sing the clean-up song and can coax children to swallow medicine.

What kind of parenting occurs outside this environment? The phrase, "I'll give you something to cry about" rings familiar to most adults.

I could blame the neighborhood for my son's wild streak and sullen outbursts. But his friends do not come from the neighborhood; they're at day care. I could listen to strangers who tell me I'm too indulgent. Instead, I blame my son -- for being a child.

Put yourself in his shoes, I say, when I'm not either bone-tired or racing to get somewhere on time. On a good day he gets to watch one entire cartoon before he's hustled into a car. He goes to sleep hearing his favorite book, Curious George Goes to the Hospital, all 47 pages.

Once a week he has dinner at McDonald's -- though he's already sporting love handles -- because it makes him happy, and his parents come from a long tradition of using food to express love.

No one expects him to sit politely as his sister is congratulated on yet another perfect spelling test. Nobody shushes him so they can whisper into the telephone about psychotherapy and chemotherapy, child support and life support.

Those are the good days, and who can blame him for lashing out when they aren't good? It's hard enough to be civil at 43, let alone 4.

Yes, there is junk pretending to be science and guilt masquerading as morality. Only one thing is certain as we cast about for culprits and solutions for the next generation:

No matter how they turn out, they'll blame it all on their parents.

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